So what exactly is this orangutan in a tuxedo? Where did these two very different sides of Colombian political culture originate, and how is it they can coexist?
The model for Colombia's political system is a form of indirect rule, common during the period of European colonial empires, in which the national political elites (mostly residing in cities) delegate authority over the countryside to local elites. Colombia's local bosses are given discretion to run things as they like in exchange for an implicit commitment not to challenge the authority of the center. International drug markets, organized crime, leftist guerillas, and rightist paramilitaries are thus not the causes of Columbia's problems; they are part and parcel of a dysfunctional style of governance. As the Colombian writer R.H. Moreno Duran put it: "In Colombia, politics corrupts drug dealing."
This explanation raises obvious questions in turn. Which interests keep this awkward, seemingly unstable system in place? How can chaos and order remain in equilibrium? Why do local elites find it in their interest to sustain the chaos?
The chaos in the periphery in Colombia simplifies the task of creating a winning coalition in the center -- or, to put it another way, it lowers the price of votes. Instead of having to win support the old-fashioned way (with patronage or popular policies), politicians can get elected by gaining the support of local bosses, or perhaps by becoming the bosses themselves.
Consider, too, that the orangutan-in-a-tuxedo system makes Colombian democracy very elite-friendly. One salient theory of the origins of democracy is that it results from concessions made by elites to avoid disorder, or even revolution. This does not, however, explain the origins of Colombia's democracy. It was, from the beginning, a means for elites to share power among themselves in a way that would avoid fighting. It didn't always work, though, so the elites came up with other political institutions to facilitate power-sharing. After the bloody inter-party conflict known as the Thousand Days War (1899 - 1902), the two political parties agreed to assign two-thirds of the legislative seats to the then-dominant Conservatives, but guaranteed one-third to the Liberals, however many votes they polled. In 1958, after another inter-party civil war, it was replaced by the National Front agreement that restored the fixed allocation of seats, adjusting the division to 50-50.